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Feeding Ewes: Tweaking feed can increase ewe production efficiency

Although ewes can typically graze most of the year and meet their nutritional requirements, during critical points in their production cycle some supplementation may be needed, according to a North Dakota State University sheep extension specialist.

During the recent webinar, “How Much to Feed Sheep,” Reid Redden explained to producers how overfeeding ewes can be as detrimental as underfeeding them. 

“The old way of feeding, that more is better, doesn’t necessarily work anymore since alfalfa is no longer $125 a ton and corn three to four dollars a bushel,” he said. “With feed costs as high as they are, sheep producers have to become more efficient feeding their ewes to not only maintain productivity, but to stay in business.”

One of the most important questions to consider when supplementing ewes is what stage of production they are in. 

“There is a drastic difference in nutritional requirements depending upon their stage of production,” he explained. “Ewes are in maintenance at least four months of the year. During those periods, their maintenance requirements are very low, and they don’t require much.” 

“Mostly, additional supplementation is needed to meet nutritional requirements during relatively short periods of time throughout the year,” Redden continued. “We should be able to maximize feed during those periods and still get good production from the ewes.”

Feeding in gestation

Early gestation, late gestation, lambing and flushing are periods when ewes may need some additional supplementation, Redden said. 

“Gestation is the most critical feeding period for sheep. If we overfeed or underfeed the ewes, there can be some detrimental effects,” he added.

During early gestation, Redden said a ewe’s nutritional requirements are only slightly above its maintenance requirements. But those requirements are higher by late gestation and may increase even more at lambing depending on if the ewe is carrying twins. 

“If the ewe is over or underfed during the first 60 days of pregnancy, it will affect how the placenta develops,” Redden explained. “If the placenta is improperly developed, it doesn’t matter how well we feed the ewe in late gestation, those lambs will not develop properly.”

A lot of fetal growth also takes place the last 60 days, so if the ewe isn’t properly fed, it can affect how the lamb develops. Embryonic loss, birth weight, lamb vigor, colostrum production, milk production, lamb mortality and reduced weaning weights are all influenced by how the ewe is fed, Redden relayed. 

“I don’t recommend underfeeding ewes after lambing, either,” he continued. “Especially for the first 60 days.” 

However, one period he advises producers to consider cutting back is a week prior to weaning. 

“It will cut back milk production, helping the ewes dry up sooner and prevent mastitis issues,” he explained. 

Available feed

To calculate a least cost ration, Redden said producers will need to research what types of feed are available in their area and are the most economical. Producers should consider forages and grains, but also byproducts like distiller’s grains, beet pulp and corn stover.

To develop a list of prospective feed ingredients, producers will need to know the cost per pound, the percentage of dry matter and the percentage of crude protein and total digestible nutrients. 

Redden recommends having the feed analyzed, if possible. Producers can also seek help from a mentor, Extension agent or nutritionist for help formulating a ration.

The Montana State Sheep Ration program can also be accessed through the internet. The free program allows producers to enter custom feeds and prices to help them calculate their own least cost rations. It also has a built-in library of feedstuffs, Redden said.

Feeding strategies

Typically a ewe will consume about three percent of her body weight, so when determining a ration, Redden said it is important to use feeds that are not so low in quality that a lot is needed to meet the ewe’s nutritional requirements. 

“They can only eat so much,” he said. “They will eat even less if they are carrying twins because they just don’t have the capacity for extra feed.”

It is also important to ensure that once a least-cost ration is determined, the ewe is consuming what a producer is feeding her. 

“Make sure she is eating what you are putting out everyday and not sorting it,” he cautioned producers. “If there is a mixture of ingredients, they may eat all the beet pulp the first day and the corn stover the next. That is not a very good diet.”

Redden recommended that producers target a certain amount of feed per day that will go toward meeting nutritional requirements at that stage of production and adjust it as that stage changes. 

“A least-cost ration can be formulated to feed to sheep,” Redden said, “but, over time producers should be willing to tweak it to continue to feed the least cost ration that will still allow the producer to maximize production of his flock.” 

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..